Physicians licensed to prescribe a medication that reduces cravings and eases withdrawal for people addicted to heroin and other opioids will now be allowed to treat more patients.
Under new rules announced Wednesday by the Obama administration, physicians who prescribe Suboxone can treat 275 patients at a time, up from 100.
Suboxone is a combination of buprenorphine, an opioid sometimes used to treat pain, and the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Unlike methadone, which can only be dispensed at specialized clinics, Suboxone can be prescribed by any licensed physician who has completed the required training.
Addiction experts have long urged federal health officials to raise the per-physician cap, citing the increase in demand for medication-assisted treatment caused by a nationwide surge in heroin and opioid abuse.
According to NPR, Michael Botticelli, the director of national drug control policy, told reporters the new rule, which takes effect August 5, "expands access and gets more physicians to reach more patients."
Whether that will be the result in New Hampshire is hard to predict.
As NHPR reported earlier this year, thousands of people addicted to heroin and other opioids are unable to find a physician willing to treat them. Last year, 143 New Hampshire physicians were licensed to prescribe the drug, the fewest per capita among New England states.
Many doctors, particularly primary care providers, say they lack the knowledge or the staff to treat patients with opioid addictions.
Another barrier is the state’s shortage of behavioral health providers. Under federal law, patients using Suboxone are required to receive group or individual therapy. The difficulty in referring patients for that treatment has discouraged many physicians from prescribing the drug.
According to an NHPR analysis of available data, fewer than 4,200 people were able to obtain a Suboxone prescription last year.
The opioid crisis, which killed more than 430 Granite Staters last year, has become a major issue in the U.S. Senate race between the incumbent Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan. Both women reacted quickly to the new rules, issuing statements that also highlighted their own policy initiatives.
Ayotte said in a statement that she was “encouraged” by efforts to increase access to treatment, noting that she joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in asking the Obama administration to raise the per-physician cap on Suboxone to 500 patients.
Hassan called medication-assisted treatment an “important part” of the state’s ongoing approach to the opioid epidemic. She aurged federal health officials to take the next step by allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to also prescribe Suboxone.